Joule picks New Mexico site for solar fuel project; now competitive with $20/barrel diesel?

May 6, 2011 |

In Massachusetts, Joule reported that they have signed a lease for 1,200 acres in Lea County, New Mexico, with the potential to scale the project up to 5,000 acres for production of renewable diesel and ethanol directly from sunlight and waste CO2.

The agreement with Lea County is the first to be completed as part of Joule’s production facility siting program.  Joule stated that Lea County meets their production requirements, including high solar insolation, access to non-potable water and waste CO2. In addition, Joule could benefit from $19 million in state incentives to facilitate operations at commercial scale.

The bombshell

“At full-scale production, Joule expects to deliver diesel and ethanol for as little as $20/bble and $0.60/gallon respectively, including current subsidies,” the company now says.

Whoa…wasn’t that $30 per barrel diesel, before? Did Joule just drop its costs by 33 percent? Sure ‘nuf.

Is Joule’s fuel a biofuel at all?

Depends on how you define it. According to Joule’s CEO, Bill Sims, no. They prefer “solar fuel”. Their view is based on the fact that they do not utilize a biomass intermediate – processing fuel, for example, from algae or corn. Or even feeding sugar to a magic bug which produces a hydrocarbon molecule.

The question revolves around whether biofuels are fuels made from biomass, or includes fuels made using an organic process that speeds up the natural process by which the earth creates fossil fuels.

Joule, for sure, has some attributes of solar. First, it converts energy directly from the sun, not unlike solar systems – but unlike traditional biofuels or wind energy, which use an intermediate.

It has some other more interesting attributes of solar – namely, the modularity and scale of the Joule “solar converter”. You add it on, in many ways like a series of solar panels.

Unlike solar, it consumes CO2 and water in addition to sunlight.

Overall, we tilt towards “biofuel,” recognizing that, ultimately, all biofuels have a relation back to solar energy, and by extension, so too do fossil fuels. As long as there is a bio-based organism and a man-made technology involved in the process, we think that separates biofuels adequately from solar energy and fossil fuels.

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